Yesterday, the inaugural Abreu Fellows attended a simple lunchtime ceremony in Boston to commemorate their graduation. A year has passed since 10 amazing young musicians began the El Sistema USA program at New England Conservatory, learning all the skills they needed to follow in the footsteps of TEDPrize winner Maestro Jose Abreu. Using the example of his groundbreaking program in Venezuela they will be heading to seven different cities in the US to establish nucleos — programs and centers that will teach children to play music, believe in themselves and reach for their dreams. The Q&A that follows is a little bonus they provided the TED Blog at the end of their year.
Tell us about your experience in Venezuela! What was it like to finally meet Maestro Abreu?
Rebecca Levi: I don’t think that I truly understood El Sistema — or what I was working for — until I met Maestro Abreu. When he walks into a room, he sees every individual, turning even the most official meetings into intimate encounters. His emotional intelligence has inspired me to think about leadership in a whole new way.
Daniel Berkowitz: We experienced the impossible 3 times each day: a miracle in each nucleo, a complete society in every orchestra and extraordinary warmth from our nucleo hosts. The energy surrounding this mission was palpable throughout the country — a testament to Maestro Abreu’s empowering leadership. We were incredibly fortunate to experience the Maestro’s presence. I returned from Venezuela energized, honored, inspired, and ultimately humbled to be doing this important work.
Lorrie Heagy: People who had visited Venezuela and its nucleos told us the experience would be life-changing and now I see why. It’s become commonplace to enter a room of a nucleo and be deeply affected by music played in ensemble by hundreds of kids. Each nucleo is living out Dr. Abreu’s conviction that “the culture for the poor cannot be a poor culture.” As we traveled to different nucleos throughout Caracas, we discovered that each site is unique and adapts to meet the needs of its children and community. In fact, Dr. Abreu explained that El Sistema is not a system, but rather a living, breathing program that continues to grow and develop through the collaboration of many generations of teachers.
The process may vary, but the goal set forth by Dr. Abreu is constant: “creating better human beings.” This mission drives the decisions of its teachers and permeates the walls of every nucleo we visit. We hear it in the impassioned voices of the young nucleo directors and teachers (not much older than their students) and see it in the determined faces of children in the orchestra focused so intently on the music that they seem unaware of the crammed spaces and stifling heat.
Dantes Rameau: Meeting Abreu was an interesting experience. There was a mysterious aura around him. He was very thankful for having us in Venezuela for two months. He started by explaining a little bit about how and why he started El Sistema. And then, what started off as a casual get-to-know-you meeting turned into him giving us a 60-minute speech, off the cuff, about the value and righteousness of what El Sistema is about. At that point, I would have run through a brick wall for him.
Where were you and what did you during your internship?
Katie Wyatt: I was in New York City with the Harmony Program, working with young college students who were being trained to be teachers in El Sistema, while they were working with spunky young kinds in Harlem and Brooklyn. We pushed hard for two weeks to prepare these kids for recitals, which blew everyone away. I knew when Treasure, a 3rd grade trumpet player, turned to her teacher and bargained that instead of playing this “boring” exercise for the recital, she should play a piece that she composed instead, that we were making progress!
Jonathan Govias: I spent my internship in Cleveland, working with a Chamber orchestra that is actively redefining the orchestra model for community engagement. They don’t compartmentalize education or outreach but make both the equal pillars of their operation. They’re not big — LA Phil spent three times their annual budget promoting Dudamel alone — but they do some of the most honest, sincere, non-publicity seeking work in the nation, bringing music to underserved areas and fostering a participatory culture.
How has the last year changed you as a person and as an educator?
Christine Witkowski: The first time I ever played music in harmony was in 6th grade band class to “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie.” I have very little doubt that this was a painfully out of tune performance with squeaking clarinets and chipped notes, but to me, it was magical. Later, with years of refinement and the help of my amazing teachers, I became a much better musician — but I also traded much of my wonderment in for critique. This year, I have regained that genuine awe for music because I have experienced it again, playing with children in El Sistema. The skills of my training, the perspective of my kids and the vital purpose of this movement have all made my life in music much fuller. The meaning behind all the music and all the work — tocar y luchar — is quite clear.
Katie Wyatt: I discovered that so much more is possible than I ever dreamed of. I will no longer place limits, of any kind, on a child. And the same applies for me, and everyone I work with and care for.
Alvaro Rodas: I have a larger appreciation for what I thought was a flaw: having to be a part-time teacher, administrator and performer was seen in this country as an “incomplete”, segmented professional. Some people call me a sort of Renaissance man, but there was always a condescending tone in that. Now I know that this is a whole profession that has a large important goal and purpose. I feel validated in what I have been doing for some years now.
Stanford Thompson: Until I saw Jose Abreu’s TED Prize wish, I understood my role as a performer and that I needed to achieve the highest level of ability to be accepted as a professional musician. After seeing the video, I dug deep inside to figure out what my purpose as a musician was. The Abreu Fellows program taught me that my role as a musician goes beyond being a performer, but also an administrator, an educator, a social worker, citizen, and a scholar. Now I feel that I have a bigger flame that I can pass along to the entire community.
What are your plans for the year ahead?
Lorrie Heagy: Imagine 60 kindergarteners in Juneau, Alaska, playing violin together during the school day! Thanks to the support of the Association of Alaska School Boards and the Glacier Valley Parent Group, the school’s kindergarten teachers, local Suzuki violin instructor and I will team together to offer group violin lessons to every kindergarten class three times a week, free of charge. This El Sistema-inspired program is called JAMM (Juneau, Alaska Music Matters) and hopes to expand to more grade levels, more Juneau schools and after-school hours in the coming years.
Christine Witkowski: I am moving to LA to become the program director for the newest Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA) El Sistema inspired program at Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA). I will have 80 first graders on strings and 40 fourth graders on winds in the first year!
David Malek: Rebecca Levi and I are co-directing an El Sistema-inspired program in Boston hosted by The Conservatory Lab Charter School. CLCS is a pre-K through 5th grade school that places the idea of learning through music at the center of its charter. In addition to being a co-director at CLCS, Rebecca and I will also be active in connecting and creating other “nucleos” that will be known as El Sistema Boston.
Dantes Rameau: Atlanta is a beautiful city with a great music and arts scene. Alongside that there are several large communities in Atlanta that do not have close access to instrumental and choral music training, but who have the right to experience it. This combination of vibrant arts scene and substantial need are an ideal landscape for an El Sistema program. It is in this vein that I and a team of dedicated Atlantans will launch the “Atlanta Music Project” in late 2010. Inspired by El Sistema, we will target underserved communities in Atlanta and be a safe haven where kids will be able to come after school to grow and play music together.
How can the TED community help to support you/el Sistema in the U.S.?
Rebecca Levi: I hope that the TED community can continue to reach out as individuals to us, especially as David and I start work in a new city. We hope that we can help El Sistema Boston grow, so any support in that endeavor would be greatly appreciated.
Katie Wyatt: Keep the movement alive! Please, read our blogs, tell your friends, and DREAM BIG! As Maestro Abreu has shown us, all you have to do is start — even if it’s with 11 kids in a garage.
David Malek: My hope is that members of the TED community that find resonance with our mission to create a counter-culture or alternative way of learning contribute in some creative way. While money is always a necessity and important to building of any program, what’s even more important is the contribution of ideas and relationships. We are building a community of friends and families that says that creating music and art together is important. Rather than wasting time and resources to convince the world to believe what we already know, we want to spend our time and resources in the doing. We know that this is what TED is all about and I hope to welcome these kindred spirits into our community.
Jonathan Govias: All TED needs to do is to make sure that this idea, along with all the other great ones the organization supports, doesn’t fall out of the consciousness of its membership. The support of TED as an organization has been invaluable, but it’s the membership, the individuals with their passion and commitment for great ideas, who will make it happen locally. There will only be 50 Abreu Fellows, but there’s no limit to the need in America and beyond.
To find out more about all the Abreu Fellows and follow their journey, please visit